What Successful Directors of Operations Do Differently

Do you aspire to become an outstanding Director of Operations? We've collected the success drivers from top performers, drawing from years of their experience.
Iryna Viter
August 24, 2022

As the global business outlook changes, so does the role of the Director of Operations. To learn how it's evolving, we've asked experienced DoOs what exactly tips the scales and helps them achieve outstanding results. Looking through their responses, we've found a couple of common threads that could increase the odds of success in operations. 

Before jumping to the success drivers, let's look at the heart of the DoO's role first. 

What is the Director of Operations role all about? 

As the Director of Operations, you are responsible for driving the company's growth and profitability by ensuring that all departments are operating at optimal levels. You do this by developing a strategic plan that aligns with the company's vision, mission, and values, managing staff, overseeing finances - you know the drill.

As the Director of Operations is often an executive-level position in a small or mid-sized organization, it always entails having a firm grasp of processes and a joined-up view of operations. But there's more. 

Dr Laura Mellor, COO at AMZ Pathfinder compares the DoO role to that of a shape-shifter:

Akin to shapeshifters, operations folks take on a multitude of roles from HR and tech stack management, to business architecture and finance. Needless to say, they are an essential part of any team. In small businesses, juggling multiple responsibilities and wearing different hats comes with the territory of operations. As companies expand, however, the success of operations relies less on one individual and more heavily on having the right team in place and being able to collectively make a difference. 

This is where the role becomes challenging. It requires someone who is able to multi-task, solve problems, and has excellent communication skills. They must also be able to lead their team with the utmost integrity and professionalism. 

Directors of Operations responsibilities

The Director of Operations has several responsibilities that vary depending on the size of the company:

  • Manage the day-to-day operations of departments such as sales, marketing, and customer service
  • Oversee staff performance
  • Develop strategies to meet business goals
  • Create financial forecasts
  • Improve operational efficiency

However, as companies become more complex and digitally savvy, the COO role requires a special focus on communication. People skills and emotional intelligence become the elephant in the room, HBR reports based on Russell Reynolds's survey: 

Source

The success drivers

1. Successful Directors of Operations remember people come first

Relying on years of experience in operations, Laura believes that books can be written on what makes successful Directors of Operations. However, she's singled out four crisp steps that can set COOs up for success.

Step 1. Accept that you cannot do it alone.

Recognizing that one person (you) cannot do everything, then accepting it, is step one for any operations manager. Do this before quality slips due to your time being spread too thin. 


Step 2. Break the barrier between a manager and an employee.


The second step is getting to know your team properly, understanding if they are a good fit (or not) for their role. I believe in breaking down the barrier between ‘manager’ and ‘employee’ and working as a part of the team. It will give you far greater insights than observing from above.

Understanding the work they do and hearing their ideas or concerns gives you a perspective on the company you cannot access anywhere else. Being a part of the decision-making processes helps the team feel motivated and empowered to do the best work they can, they are a part of this business, and these are the people who can be relied upon. How can your company improve its processes if the people working in it and driving those processes do not have a say? 

Happy people do happy work. Allow them space, do not micromanage, it encourages codependency, and strangles proactivity. You’ll be surprised once you give them the reins. They don’t need you looking over their shoulders. 


Step 3. If you can’t explain it to your grandma, it is too complicated.

Moving on from people and onto processes, the cornerstone of operations. A core value at AMZ Pathfinder is ‘simplicity’. We live by it, any new processes which arise are looked at objectively and we ask ourselves: how could this be simpler? Complexity for the sake of it is a waste of time and resources. Step back from your new process, observe, then attack it with the shears.

Step 4. A culture of documentation. 


A fourth tip for finding success in operations is a culture of documentation. Starting first with documenting tasks with flexible software. Having everything in one spot encourages cross-collaboration, and transparency and helps to prevent items from being forgotten. 

Finally, documentation of your processes. Yes, the dreaded SOPs are actually super important. In most companies, the need for a standardized quality of work becomes apparent very early on, but the documentation of it lags behind. Writing down your processes and having a schedule for updating them is a simple fix (if you started early on). Once organized, you have a manual on how you as a company do a certain task, this relieves a few bottlenecks such as team members spending time teaching basic knowledge, and stops the same questions being asked time and time again already you are streamlining your company and saving precious time for your team.

The four tips above will help you get on the right track for managing the operations of your company efficiently and smoothly. "Always remember people come before the processes," Laura highlights.  

Not surprisingly, this applies to any industry, manufacturing as well. Read on to find out why as Troy explains straight from the shop floor.

2. Successful Directors of Operations edify, educate, and elevate people

Our next guest, Troy D. George has worked in operations and management positions for half of his life. He's now making a leadership impact in EFTEC North America, LLC. 

EFTEC is the leading expert for the automotive industry with engineered materials and application systems for bonding, coating, sealing, and damping. 

Here's what Troy believes sets successful COOs from the rest:

Just as the world of operations covers so many facets of the business (production, safety, quality, maintenance, HR, budgeting, customer service, sales, marketing, logistics, and so much more), we have to be predictive and proactive; tactical and strategic, micro and macro, customer-focused while being operations centered, and do it all while having a positive short term financial outlook and doing the right thing long term. In other words, because a DO or COO is spread so thin, they better have the proper systems, processes, people, procedures, and controls in place so their legacy of success will far outlast their careers. To over-simplify all of this: a Director of Operations and/or COO's main responsibility is to edify, educate, and elevate all those he/she is responsible for.

3. Successful Directors of Operations are accessible and responsive

However, elevating people has always been easier said than done. Stephanie Dawoud, Operations Lead at LEVELS, is certain that in part success comes with being truly accessible, responsive, and caring among other things: 

As Operations Lead, I strive to be accessible and responsive to employees in all parts of the organization. For me, it’s important to see our team as individuals and pick up on their well-being and the overall engagement of our employees. 

I also believe in the importance of understanding the day-to-day work at a sometimes detailed level in order to recognize what chains of processes and decisions are needed or need to be iterated in order to create the most value. At the same time, it’s important to challenge the status quo and make sure we are aware of why we do certain things and are curious and open to trying new ways of working.  

4. Successful Directors of Operations build strong relationships and uncover potential

Operations won't flourish where relationships aren't built and supported. Jennifer McDermott, bringing experience from the pharmaceutical industry, puts a strong focus on building relationships:

One thing is that I ensure I get to know all the people within my organization very well, no matter their job title. It’s important to me that I establish personal relationships with each of them which builds trust and mutual respect. Sometimes, leaders within Operations get bogged down in the work and don’t focus on the people element. For me, that is a missed opportunity for leaders. 

I also like to know from the shop floor employees what is their 5-year plan. This discussion helps them to really think about career possibilities that they may not have thought about or considered. It is my passion to help unlock each team member’s potential and how I can contribute to them getting to their goal. 

From time to time, Jennifer prefers to get into the trenches with the team: 

Another thing that successful directors do is carrying out the work with their team members to fully gain appreciation and understanding of the work they perform daily. This helps an executive leader learn what challenges their team may be encountering, learn the processes, and/or needs they may need (eg, process simplification, technology, tools, etc).  

One of Jennifer's most memorable experiences in operations is seeing her team members' faces knowing she is taking the time and care enough to learn about the work they perform. "It’s about creating that mutual respect - put a uniform on like they do, take breaks and lunches according to their schedule, and work as their coworker, not their manager," Jennifer points out. " It’s an experience that no matter what my role is, I ensure I put time aside to work beside my fellow teammates to continuously learn and build relationships."

5. Successful Directors of Operations get boots on the ground

Building relationships is not the only reason why you need to get in the trenches with your team. No matter how much you know about the business, you need to get out there and see how things really work. Understanding exactly what's happening in the trenches will help you plan for the future, admits Ella Steinmetz-Simon, COO at 14 Minds. In the middle of totally redoing their processes and resetting their organization, Ella is a big believer that many COOs should do things differently, so she shared a few nuggets of wisdom with us. 

Ella knows there are no shortcuts when it comes to building a strong team. The best place to start, she thinks, is simply by checking in with the team.

It's very easy to look at work that's being done and make assumptions that we're not moving efficiently enough, not moving fast enough, not following processes, etc. Getting down into the mud, you can see what's really going on. And that can give a really good perspective on why operations are the way they are. It's twofold. Getting boots on the ground really helps the team move forward when they see that you have an interest and actually care to get down on their level and be side by side with them just observing and learning about what they're doing. But then, it also gives you insight into all the little technicalities that happen during the day, during the week, during the month. Most of the time in operations, we plan for a nearly perfect scenario, but the reality is that it doesn't happen. Even if you factor in change, you don't necessarily know what it entails. Unless you get your boots on the ground, you'll leave things up to chance. 

Another key difference between successful COOs and their less effective counterparts is how they communicate with the rest of the leadership teams and their respective departments. Many COOs are great at communicating with their own teams - but when it comes time to talk with other executives or even worse, external partners like vendors or clients? Not so much. That's why successful COOs have learned how to build strong relationships outside their departments by making themselves available for questions and concerns at all times. 

But there's a lot more to being an effective COO, Ella says. In addition to shadowing your team over their work from time to time, you have to invest in automation and set goals properly. 

6. Successful Directors of Operations are always on the lookout for software & automation

The biggest challenge for new Operations Directors is figuring out how to manage the influx of data and information that comes with taking on a new role. Successful operations leaders know that managing this information can be overwhelming, but they also know that it’s essential to their success as a leader. 

Directors of Operations use technology to help them manage their data so they can stay on top of everything happening in their business. 

Every single company should be invested in having software that works for the company, not the other way around. Always look for more automation. Just because you have software that was the most popular six months ago, be on the lookout, see what's going on, follow the trends, and don't be afraid to try new things, Ella says.  

7. Successful Directors of Operations don't throw big goals at their teams 

It may sound counterintuitive, but to make sure the team understands what's required of them, it's important for COOs to start thinking smaller, breaking down the north star goals into a set of very narrow ones. 

"COOs generally tend to think bigger and faster. Teams, on the other hand, do not necessarily think that way. And it's really important to, again, put yourself in your team's shoes and break down milestones into smaller goals that are achievable and attainable," Ella continues. 

The key here is understanding how your team works best and using that knowledge to coach them through the process. If you're working with a remote team or one with multiple time zones, then Loom can help you keep everyone on track without having to send lots of emails back and forth.

The same goes for setting up regular check-ins where you can ask questions about what each person is working on and how they're feeling about their tasks — this will help ensure they aren't feeling overwhelmed or undervalued by their managers. 

8. Successful Directors of Operations are forward-looking

Many people assume that the role of a director is all about managing processes - making sure everything is done according to company policy and procedures. But successful COOs also think about what's next for their teams: What do we need to be doing differently? Where will our business be in a year or two? How can we improve our processes today so that we're better prepared for tomorrow?

Great DoOs want their teams to be prepared for everything — including unexpected surprises like sudden spikes in demand or unexpected issues with suppliers or customers. They know that it’s better to be prepared than caught off guard by an unplanned event, so they work hard to proactively manage risk so they can keep everything running smoothly even when things go wrong (which happens more often than we think).

In other words, successful Directors of Operations keep an eye on the horizon — they look beyond today's problems so that they can anticipate tomorrow's issues before they become problems at all.

Understanding that change is inevitable and that they need to stay ahead of it, outstanding COOs have a long-term view of the business. Nate Moeller, COO at The Penguin Group, believes in the power of forward thinking as opposed to constantly putting out day-to-day fires:

As a successful COO, focus on making improvements to the company’s processes in ways that anticipate operational hiccups, changes in personnel, and most importantly, growth. Do not let the day-to-day fires become your daily focus. Train your staff to resolve those issues on their own. Make sure you have enough time to do research, brainstorm, and plan. Many COOs make the mistake of filling their day with work and do not leave any time for these tasks which are integral to the growth of the company and its ability to stay agile and relevant. Be creative, and try to figure out ways to implement the ideas of those around you to expand the business. 

Do not be scared to make changes to the company’s operation once you are familiar enough with it, and have done a process analysis to see what this change will affect down the road. The key is to plan ahead, anticipate the need to raise salaries, increase benefits, and hire ahead instead of reactively. 

9. Successful COOs don't run teams at their redline

Both Nate and Ella also advise Directors of Operations to never fully book your employees' days with tasks. Leaving buffer room is extremely important: 

Do not allow employees to have more than 80% of their day full of scheduled tasks, the other 20% fill in automatically. If an employee’s schedule is at 100% capacity, then you can assume things are falling through the cracks. Negotiate contracts with vendors and get creative - there are many business deals waiting to take place when you think creatively. Lastly, make sure that everything has a process and that the employees know the process, and stick to it. Once employees start improvising on the processes, productivity will decrease. Be sure to keep updating these processes and facilitate the communication to ensure that all parties involved are on the same page.

10. Successful DoOs have a high level of emotional intelligence 

They can read situations accurately, understand people’s motivations, manage conflicts constructively, and respond appropriately to others’ emotions.

They actively seek feedback from their team members as well as from customers and other stakeholders. They know that feedback tells them what they are doing well so they can keep doing it, but also where they need improvement so they can change course if necessary.

Wrapping up

Long story short, there are many paths to success - but there's one thing that's for sure: if you want to be around for the long-haul, you'll need a solid foundation to build from. We hope you liked this roundup, and if you do, share it with your fellow COOs. Let's make the future of work more people-focused and empowering. It can always be better than it is now!

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